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Trying to Develop an Effective Team? Don’t Overlook This

by Jacqueline Ackerman on

Teams are complex – “lots of moving parts,” as the saying goes. But focusing on one or two underlying aspects of team functioning might make that complexity more manageable. For instance, how often do leaders consider working on empathy (or social connectedness) in teams? The research would suggest it’s an integral component in effective teams – and it might not be getting the attention it deserves.

LOW EMPATHY AT WORK

While working with an executive leadership team recently, we had a discussion about what was hampering the team from operating at the highest level. Most of it will seem familiar to any executive team: Not having enough time to focus on strategy and vision. Prioritizing the many tasks executives have in front of them daily, if not hourly. Ensuring that the teams below them are hearing the messages from the top and are motivated to carry out the company’s mission.  None of this was surprising.

What was more interesting, and perhaps more fundamental to this team’s effectiveness, was how the team was interacting. They weren’t listening to each other. They were talking over each over. Social cues seemed off. Some people weren’t speaking while others were dominating. Comments that should have sparked conversations weren’t picked up on.

It became clear that this, not a focus on strategy or fixing fire drills, was the team dynamic that we should be talking about. How this team communicated and collaborated with one another was arguably more important than all of the business priorities we’d been discussing.

EMPATHY AS A TEAM TRAIT

We are finding in our work and research with teams that this concept of social connectedness is quite powerful in team effectiveness. Teams who lack empathy and exhibit poor communication patterns won’t be able to successfully get at their business priorities. They won’t build the required trust to discuss the real issues in a constructive way. Team empathy is the price of admission and little of importance can be accomplished by a team seriously lacking this quality.

A study at MIT analyzed teams that were exceptional at decision-making. When looking at what differentiated these teams from teams that struggled to perform, they noted that the effective teams were consistently more able to read one another’s subtle cues in mood and demeanor. Essentially, the teams that had more empathy and time with each other were more effective.

We tend to think of leaders who have more empathy as being able to more effectively build relationships with others and connect with their teams, but this capability is rarely discussed as a team trait.  Being alert to one another on a team can help with understanding what each team member needs to be effective and how to view things from the other’s perspective.  Team empathy makes the team more resilient and better able to tackle problems productively.

The MIT study also alludes to another conversation: how related is the amount of quality time team members spend with each other to their degree of empathy? Does one foster the other? How does this affect global teams? Remote teams?  This will become more and more relevant for teams and the leaders who foster team communication.

BREAK SILOS TO DEVELOP EMPATHY AT THE TEAM LEVEL

One of the elements of our High Performance team model is the concept of shared accountability – each team member should care passionately about the team’s shared success, and his/her role in making it happen.  When looking at our benchmarks of executive teams, this is without a doubt, a key factor in the team’s effectiveness. But fostering this dimension, especially when the team is struggling to break free of silos, is no easy task.

One way to build empathy on the team is to have a leader share her vision and priorities with one of her peers.  The peer shares the vision with the rest of the team as if it were his own. Not only does this allow a leader to step into someone else’s shoes, it allows the team to hear the leader’s priorities and goals from a different perspective, and ideally see the impact on the broader enterprise.

The process known as “job empathy” can also help foster empathy as a team trait and a sense of shared accountability. In this process, people spend some time in another person’s role. For example, someone in assembly spends a day working in the shipping area. They come to learn what they could do to make the work of others easier and more productive. A variation on this is to periodically attend another team’s weekly meeting to learn what is important to them and then report back to his/her team. This experience can also have effects beyond building empathy. Seeing how others work can bring about new ideas and improvements in the team member’s original role as well.

As team work and collaboration become more and more critical, and more and more complex, having stand-out teams is of increasing importance to the success of any business. Understanding and developing the underlying factors that lead to team effectiveness, such as empathy, can go a long way toward achieving this goal.

How have you experienced team empathy (or lack thereof) in your organizations? What have you done to promote it?

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